The Monuments Men

Back to The Monuments Men | Woolley, Lt. Col. Sir Charles Leonard

Sir Charles Leonard Woolley ( 1880 - 1960 )

The renowned British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley was born on April 17, 1880. An Oxford graduate, he became assistant keeper in in the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum in 1905. Best known for his excavations of the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations, Woolley began his archaeological career in 1907 when he joined a University of Pennsylvania expedition to excavate at Karanog and Buhen in Nubia. The same year, the British Museum selected him to succeed D.G. Hogarth as Director of Excavations at the ancient Hittite city of Carchemish along the present-day Turkish-Syrian border. Accompanying Woolley in Carchemish was T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Woolley then worked at Tell el-Amarna, capital of the Egyptian king Akhenaton. In addition, his discovery of geological evidence of a great flood suggested a possible correlation with the deluge described in the Bible’s book of Genesis.

Woolley and Lawrence entered the British Army in the fall of 1914. Woolley was commissioned into the Intelligence Service in Egypt. In 1916 a ship on which he was sailing hit a mine and sunk; Woolley was rescued by a Turkish vessel and made a prisoner of war. He was not released by his captors until the end of 1918. In 1919 he was ordered back to Syria as a Political Officer with the joint Anglo-French occupation.

Woolley was released from military duty toward the end of 1919 and began his archaeological work full time. His greatest archaeological achievement was the discovery of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, in present-day Iraq. Excavations at Ur began in 1922 and continued under his leadership through 1934 with joint funding from the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. His book Ur of the Chaeldees (1929) became the most widely read book on an archaeological subject at the time, and formed the foundation for modern knowledge regarding ancient Mesopotamia. Woolley later published Volume II of Ur Excavations, which earned him a knighthood in 1935. In the subsequent years between 1935 and 1939, Woolley returned to the Middle East on multiple occasions.

On September 4, 1939, Woolley was re-commissioned with the Intelligence Division at the British War Office handling intelligence regarding the Middle East. In this position, he established important influential contacts, including Anthony Blunt (art historian and member of British counterintelligence), and Kim Philby (the Secret Intelligence Service: MI6). In 1942 Woolley acted as a consultant to director Roy Boutling regarding the Middle East, a collaboration which resulted in the film Desert Victory, winner of a 1943 special Academy Award.

In 1943 Woolley was transferred to Public Relations, where he completed his work organizing a card index of British monuments and fine arts. He began the project in 1941 with the intention that, in the event of war damage, the records could be easily utilized for restoration purposes. He also extended the project to include the world’s most important treasures, together with files on those paintings and sculptures known to have been concealed by friendly governments and agents, or stolen or damaged by occupying forces. Increasingly interested in Woolley’s work, Prime Minister Winston Churchill invited Woolley to his office on three separate occasions in 1943.

In June 1943 leaders of the British museum community put out an urgent call for the protection of monuments in Italy. Subsequently, the War Ministry established an Archaeological Advisory Branch of the Army Staff within Civil Affairs. The advisory branch consisted of a very small staff including only Woolley, his secretary (and wife) Lady Woolley, and a clerk. However, Woolley’s influence soon grew. In October of that same year he was appointed Archaeological Advisor to the Director of Civil Affairs in the office of SHAEF. His influence during the early stages of the MFAA set the standard for not only the organization of the program but also for the work of later Monuments Men in the field.

Woolley visited Algiers, Sicily, and Italy during November and December 1943 to observe MFAA operations in the field firsthand. His official report, which included his own recommendations for the improvement of MFAA operations, resulted in a general order and a letter from the Supreme Commander in Chief to all his commanders. A Court of Inquiry was opened in Naples in January 1944 and released as a draft by the MFAA Sub-Commission and the Headquarters of the Allied Armies in Italy on March 30, 1944. His recommendations clearly defined the responsibilities of the Allied Armies in respect to cultural monuments and firmly established the role of MFAA Officers in the field. In his characteristically noble fashion, Woolley was oftentimes heard repeating the motto, “We protected the arts at the lowest possible cost,” a phrase borrowed from Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

In January 1944 Woolley recommended the appointment of Monuments Man Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge, as adviser to the Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC) on all matters relative to Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives. Like Woolley before him, Webb was instrumental in the growth of the MFAA. Woolley continued his work at the War Office, providing advice and helping establish policies and procedures which served as the basis of the efforts of the Monuments Men in the field.

Leonard Woolley died in London on February 20, 1960.*

*The Foundation wishes to express thanks to The National Archives and Dr. Greg Bradsher, longtime friends and supporters, for their contribution to this biographical profile.